Ranchers and Reindeer
(What Do They Have in Common?)
by William Coolidge III of Altona, NY
As my son and I journeyed West last August, we anticipated all the things that a working ranch vacation has to offer: breath-taking scenery, unlimited horseback riding, scrumptious meals, cowboy songs and campfires, and magnificent Western sunsets. At the Naill Ranch, in northeastern Colorado, we experienced all of this, and more! During our stay, Billy and I felt privileged to learn of a magical connection between two (seemingly) very different cultures.
The moment we arrived at the ranch, the seeds of a burgeoning friendship were sown. Gary and Penny Naill are a delightful couple, very likable and easy to get to know, and they shared many hilarious and heartwarming stories with us. One evening, while describing some of the experiences they’ve had running their guest ranch operation, Gary mentioned the ‘reindeer connection.’ Intrigued by this little-known link between cowboys and caribou, I pressed for more details. Here’s the story, as narrated by Gary Naill…
Elisabeth Jonsson, a previous guest at the ranch, was struck by the similarities between cattle ranching in the American West, and raising reindeer in the far north of her native Sweden. Reindeer, like cattle, are highly gregarious and usually travel in herds. The American rancher relies on his cattle herd to sustain a way of life that has been ongoing for nearly 150 years. Laplanders, the inhabitants of the northern-most regions of Norway, Finland and Sweden, have been herding reindeer for centuries, and are almost completely dependent on them for their livelihood. Meat and milk are two of the most important products that the Lapps obtain from their herds. Reindeer milk is four times richer in butterfat than cow’s milk, and the Laplanders use it not only as a beverage, but also to make cheese. The hides of their animals are utilized to make clothing, shoes, tents and bedding, while tools are fashioned from the bones and antlers.
Upon returning home, Elisabeth was inspired to capture these parallel lifestyles, being carried on by two distinct cultures, thousands of miles apart. Using her contacts as a business consultant, she brought together a Swedish PBS-type film crew and a young Laplander named Tobias, then flew Gary and Penny to Burtrask, Sweden, where Gary and Tobias put on an instructional clinic, each demonstrating their own style of roping. Their prowess with their native lassos was captured on film as part of a documentary.
The Swedish, or Lapp, lasso is roughly three times longer than its cowboy counterpart. While cowboys generally rope from the back of a horse, then use a branding iron to indicate ownership, Lapps lasso their quarry from the ground, and with a sharp knife used exclusively for this purpose, they make a proprietary mark in the ear of their livestock. More than 200 different earmarks are utilized to distinguish the reindeer of one family from those of any other.
As Gary explains it: “The Lapps are to Sweden what the American Indians are to the United States – the big difference is, the Swedes have taken better care of their native people.” The Lapps live on millions of acres of public land (comparable to our BLM land), above the Arctic Circle. It is a land of rushing rivers and large, finger-like lakes, with forests of pine and spruce at elevations up to about 1,600 feet, and vast tracts of tundra above that. During the summer, reindeer graze on the tender, young shoots of willow and birch, and on certain grasses. But in wintertime, they feed primarily on reindeer moss and lichens (both of which are rich in minerals), as well as on some native hay.
Tobias is scheduled to visit the Naill Ranch in October to take part in the fall gather. The same Swedish film-makers will also be on location there, to shoot footage of the fall works, and finish up the filming of their documentary. Gary and Penny are very enthusiastic about the cultural exchange, and eagerly await the arrival of Tobias and the Swedes.